Nesa Sivagnanam's Reviews > The Tiger's Wife

The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht
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Mar 22, 12

Read on March 22, 2012

With fables and allegories, as well as events from the headlines, Obrecht illustrates the complexities of Balkan history.

Luka, a dreamy, brooding butcher’s son comes from a mountain village called Galina. A decade after World War I, Luka leaves Galina and walks 300 miles to the river port of Sarobor, where he hopes to master the gusla, a single-stringed Balkan folk instrument. Arriving there, he finds that gusla music is nearly forgotten, overtaken by rollicking modern tunes played by lusty, boisterous bands. Still, he seeks out old men who know the traditional songs, falls under the spell of the “throbbing wail of their voices winding through tales remembered or invented” and acquires their art. Although his gift is for lyrics rather than music, “there are those who say that any man who heard Luka play the gusla, even in wordless melody, was immediately moved to tears.” When a woman asks why he doesn’t prefer an instrument with a greater number of strings, he responds, “Fifty strings sing one song, but this single string knows a thousand stories.”

Obreht’s narrator is Natalia Stefanovic, a young doctor who lives with her mother, grandmother and grandfather in an unnamed Balkan city early in the 21st century. Natalia likes to see herself as somebody with an edge: too rational to be cowed by old-fashioned superstitions, too modern for old-fashioned folk music. She prefers Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash.

As a little girl, Natalia adored her grandfather, a respected doctor and professor, and tagged along on his regular visits to the zoo, which was formerly a sultan’s fortress. “Past the aviary where the sharp-eared owls sleep,” they would walk to the moat where tigers loped, their “stripe-lashed shoulders rolling.” There she would listen, rapt, as her grandfather spoke of a girl he once knew who was known as the “tiger’s wife.”

At the time, Natalia thought this was a fairy tale. After all, her grandfather always carried a copy of Kipling’s “Jungle Book” in his breast pocket. To his granddaughter, he was a fount of fantasy, her own private bard.

When Natalia is a teenager, war returns to the Balkans. The zoo closes, and a curfew is imposed. Natalia and her friends immerse themselves in “the mild lawlessness” that surrounds them. Among other things, this means spurning her grandfather and dating a young tough who sells black-market contraband. But late one night, missing the old man, she agrees to follow him on a wild goose chase whose purpose he won’t explain.

After following him through dark, empty streets, suddenly she sees what he sees: an elephant, a refugee from a defunct circus, being walked to the city’s embattled zoo. “None of my friends will ever believe it,” she exclaims in regret. “You must be joking,” her grandfather replies, rebuking her: “The story of this war — dates, names, who started it, why — that belongs to everyone. Not just the people involved in it, but the people who write newspapers, politicians thousands of miles away, people who’ve never even been here or heard of it before. But something like this — this is yours. It belongs only to you. And me. . . . You have to think carefully about where you tell it, and to whom. Who deserves to hear it?” Chastened, Natalia asks if he has other stories “like that,” stories “from before.” The question will transform her into a bard herself.

Soon after the war, the adult Natalia adds to this trove as she travels with a fellow doctor on a mercy mission to a town across the new border to inoculate orphans — orphans who have been created, she knows, “by our own soldiers.” “Twelve years ago,” she explains, “before the war, the people of Brejevina had been our people.” Back then, crossing borders was a formality, but now an unwary welcome is out of the question. Still, the family that plays host to the doctors treats them to a generous feast and takes care not to mention politics, religion or family matters. Nor do they explain the presence of a band of strange, sickly people roaming their property, digging holes day and night.

The diggers, Natalia learns, are hunting for the buried corpse of a relative who died without proper rites, whom they believe is blighting their family from the grave. They have come to Brejevina to right that wrong and expunge the curse. Sensible, educated Natalia finds that she can’t scorn their conviction. In fact, she has family rites of her own to attend to, a detour she must make to placate her grandmother. It’s on the drive back from this detour that Natalia recalls her grandfather’s story of Luka.

By this time, though, she has learned that neither Luka nor the tiger’s wife were characters from fairy tales. They were real people who lived in the village of Galina, the birthplace not only of Luka but of Natalia’s grandfather. The tiger who gave the “tiger’s wife” her name was real too: he made his way to Galina in 1941, spooked by bombs that fell on a Balkan city. In the woods above her grandfather’s village, Natalia tells us, the sound of the animal still vibrates amid the trees, a “tight note that falls and falls.”
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